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May 4, 2009 2:10 PM

Bill Gates Sr. on Bill Gates, family and philanthropy

Posted by Kristi Heim

Bill Gates Sr., lawyer, philanthropist and father of the richest man in the world, grew up in fear of being poor. He still eats at Burgermaster, and he turns the lights off every time he leaves a room, a lesson from the Great Depression. Gates has just published a memoir of the values and experiences that shaped his 83 years, called "Showing up for Life," which he discusses in this recent interview.

Q: You sum up your book's main point as "we are in this life together and we need each other." Is this a world view?

A: It's a world view. It's easy to have this sharing of responsibility among people, particularly among neighborhoods. We've clearly gotten to the point where there's a sense of sharing 7,000 miles away. There's really nothing complicated about it. A simple business of recognizing to start with we are all so interdependent. There's just no getting around it. We have to be helpful to each other or it would be an impossible world. This is not only good religion but very practical for economy and humanity.

Q: You described part of your childhood in the Depression, when your father walked home and collected chunks of coal by the side of the road for heat. What lasting effect did that have on you?

A: It's there. I never leave a room empty without turning the lights out. That is absolutely a habit learned from my father. I'm very surprised at the number of people today that don't turn out the lights when they leave, including relatives of mine. To some extent that's a product of this basic sense that comfort and a good life are always at risk, and there is another thing that happens to people called poverty. My children really don't have any notion of that.


Q: What has moved you the most in your travels?

A: A couple months ago I was in India with Bill and we went back into this slum area to see a little girl, Hashmin, who had contracted polio. It was a terrible thing against this worldwide very muscular effort going on to rid the world of polio. It was very affecting to see this little girl, but at the same time very energizing to continue the pressure on this subject.

I can remember as a father thinking about the possibility of my children getting polio. No parent thinks about that anymore because it doesn't happen.... The trip in India was the first time I'd been on an overseas (foundation) trip with Bill. It was something he organized and we had his two sisters along as well.

Q: You've spent more than 10 years working at the Gates Foundation, where you're one of three co-chairs. What do you think have been its most successful and least successful efforts?

A: Set aside all the things in progress. We don't have any grade for them up or down. Some things we are doing are so long term. A vaccine for AIDS ... we've got a good many years ahead of us before we have the answer if it's a useful exercise or a waste of time.

I do think the delivery of vaccines in the poor world ... couldn't be left out of the list of positive results of the foundation's work. Literally millions of kids are receiving the vaccines. Without putting figures on it, at least thousands of kids who had the benefit of a good regimen of vaccines are not going to get sick and die prematurely.

The work we're doing in education, while it's been very good and delivered a lot of value to kids is something we've decided the strategy we were using ... wasn't a bit clear [whether] it was ever going to go to scale, and we needed to look at other factors than the size of high schools ... and think about things that were a bit more fundamental, like the quality of teaching and the standards we've applied to judge our own success.

Q: What is the biggest change since your son started working at the foundation full time?

A: There's nothing very big in terms of fundamental changes. He and Melinda continue to be the ultimate deciders in the most important issues that come along. The change I notice is he and she, particularly he, are there more often and as a result participate more in understanding the new projects and status of old projects. They're just more involved.

Q: Do you ever get veto power?

A: No.

Q: In your philanthropy work with your son, are there any areas where you didn't see eye to eye on an issue?

A: He and I have a different view about the duration of a life of a foundation. He is of the school that believes they should not be perpetual and they should end, and I am a believer in the perpetual foundation. I don't know that it's actually a major difference of opinion. This foundation is going to end at a precisely defined time. People like Rockefeller [Foundation] are going to go on until who knows.

Q: Why do you believe in perpetual foundations?

A: It's bad to spend all the money when you have a large corpus working and earning funds. I think when you finally spend it all it's a wonderful gift to someone or something... 10 or 20 times the size of grants you've been making up to that point, so that's good stuff. But then it's over and all the things that are under way and good things that might be [are not funded] because it's gone.

Q: What do you think about the criticism that the foundation is too heavily focused on technology solutions?

A: Actually I don't think there's any validity to that. It seems to me kind of nonsense. It's a question of what works. We've got so many lessons over the past decade about technology contributing to efficiency, accomplishing things that otherwise would be impossible. To be honest I don't understand what technology the critics are talking about. If they mean vaccines, it's sheer nonsense. There's isn't any question of the value of creating a vaccine that would rid the world of malaria.

Q: What about the criticism that the foundation has too much influence because of its enormous assets, yet only a small number of people making decisions -- three co-chairs and three trustees.

A: We try to ameliorate that in the case of three major program advisory groups with knowledgeable, mature experienced people who get together and review the programs. Getting their input and advice is a fairly significant safeguard against the potential for bad decisions with such a very few minds working on it.

Another thing that wouldn't be obvious is the whole business of mature, experienced personnel that have everything to do with what we do and decide to do. We have people in global health who know as much about global health as there is to know. The decisions of what we're doing go though that mechanism to start with.

There's a lot of safeguards against it both in additional outside advice and internal expertise. But I go on to say in a hurry, notwithstanding, that we very likely will miss one somewhere here or there. I would just offer the same thing is true with foundations that have 50-person boards or 15-person boards.

Q: Getting back to raising Bill Gates, I read about the famous water-throwing incident at the table. At some point you realized you could not control him.

A: I couldn't control myself was the problem. Nobody can really control their kids -- it's just [a] natural universal phenomenon. Kids get to the point they begin to feel their selfness, their worthiness and that naturally generates a resistance to somebody imposing their will on them. That was the garden variety problem we were dealing with. It started at a bit younger age because he started thinking very independently and thoughtfully at an earlier age than at most kids.

Q: What are the values you imparted to him?

A: I guess I would think about what values he has and go on and say we played some part in all of that, but incidentally not a controlling part -- his curiosity, his energy, getting answers to things, his sense of the appropriateness of hard work. Being a hard worker, which he clearly is and was, he had some examples of around his own household, although I would say not solely credited to us. But his sense of the interdependency of humanity, of him and others in the world, is something he got at least some confirmation of around the dinner table at home.

Q: And what characteristics of his surprise you ... that you don't recognize in yourself?

A: I suppose his well known proclivity for being argumentative and even ... quite challenging of the suggestions and ideas that other people are expressing. It's wonderful to sit around the table with him when people are talking about what makes sense and what doesn't make sense but he comes into those discussions very strongly. It's an indication of his immense self confidence. It's a characteristic I'm not going to be able to explain where it came from.

Q: In your book you talk about attending church, and your wife quoted a passage from the Bible at your son's wedding. Do you think faith in any way motivates your son's philanthropy now?

A: I think I'll stay away from that. You can ask him that question someday.

Update: Gates will discuss his book May 19 at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce Legends & Leaders program.

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